Lessons for Singapore from Malaysian elections

Former Singapore lawmaker INDERJIT SINGH picks up three pointers from across the causeway: 1. The ruling elite lost touch with ground and did not listen to people; 2. Lack of Bold Changes; 3. Right to lead and form govt is not an inherited right

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VICTORY: Dr Mahathir (third from left) and other leaders of the Pakatan Harapan coalition in an early morning press conference on 10 May 2018. L-R: Azmin Ali (PKR), Mat Sabu (Amanah), Muhyddin (Pribumi) and Lim Kit Siang (DAP) – Photo: Dr Mahathir Facebook page
By Inderjit Singh | SINGAPORE | OPINION

Two key events took place this week. First, President Halimah Yacob delivered her address at the opening of the 2nd session of the 13th Singapore Parliament spelling the vision and plans for the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) 4G leadership. The second was the historical defeat of the ruling Barisan National (BN) government who lost power after continuously holding on to power for 61 years, since the Malaysian Independence. I am sharing what we can learn from these significant events.

Key Messages of The President’s Address to Parliament

Introduction: The President recently delivered her address at the opening of the 2nd session of the 13th Parliament of Singapore. The President’s address is effectively a message from the government on their plans for Singapore. Which is why this year, and this address, is particularly important because for the first time, the strategy for the future of Singapore has been mainly formulated by the 4G leaders who will soon take charge of the government.

Next week in Parliament we will be hearing from the 4G leaders about their vision and plans and from the MPs who should debate on what the government should be doing for the good of their voters – their fellow Singaporeans. I am looking forward to hearing from the 4G leaders and hope they will be able to inspire Singaporeans to be confident about Singapore’s future. Interestingly, the President highlighted a few key points that I feel were very important messages for the 4G leadership and for all MPs to reflect upon and understand.

It is also useful for us to reflect on the Malaysia election results that came in this morning and hopefully draw lessons that our MPS and 4G leaders will address during next week’s debate on the President’s Address. Malaysians created history today – for the 1st time in history after 61 years a new government will be formed. The ruling BN not only got ousted but lost convincingly. The people exercised their right to change government as they got tired of kleptocracy and exercised their democratic rights. Well done Malaysians, very few expected the BN to lose.

Lessons Learnt from the Malaysia Elections

So, what happened in Malaysia yesterday and how is it relevant to Singapore? There are three lessons that interestingly were also signalled by President Halimah Yacob’s address to parliament.

1. The ruling elite lost touch with ground and did not listen to people.

1MDB was a serious issue but the people in power used all tools at their disposal to hide the truth instead of convincingly proving innocence. Cost of living was a serious issue but the leaders who were rich did not feel it and did not listen to the ground to understand the true situation. Malaysians were concerned about the over investment by foreigners in their country, as they felt that their country was being “sold” to the foreigners, but the government pressed on to allow more and more investments. Sabah is a surprise. Opposition listened and understood what Malaysians were most concerned about and promised changes.

2. Lack of Bold Changes – What worked in the past does not always work today or in the future.

The incumbent BN government that ruled Malaysia for 61 years continued to depend on old policies, old structures and old politics to run the country and in how they conducted their politics. Bold changes did not happen for a long time. The government did nothing new.

While in early years, infrastructure development was necessary, this remained the government’s main focus – an irrelevant 50-year-old strategy, again fuelled by foreign investment. This led to unnecessary projects like housing that resulted in empty buildings.

BN used old tactics and continued the age-old race-based politics. Opposition created a multi-racial alliance and the man responsible for much of the old strategy (Dr Mahathir Mohamad) made a bold change of joining his past foes to create that multi-racial coalition, promising a return to firm rule of law.

Here, I must single out Dr. Mahathir. Many credit him for being an astute politician and rightly so. But more importantly, it is amazing that he has the vision and an open-mind to recognize that many of the old politics that he introduced in his era are irrelevant and that a new approach and new politics is needed. And implement. It is said that it is difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. But here, a 92-year old has learnt it, adapted and taught us all the value of being bold and innovative. Much for all of us to learn.

Moreover, BN again reverted to the old election tactic of handouts and dangling carrots like public holidays and tax exemptions. This showed that they were out of touch with the majority millennial voters who wanted accountability and transparency more than anything, as well as bringing Malaysians back to the core and fore.

3. Right to lead and form govt is not an inherited right.

UMNO took it for granted that they had the inherited right to rule and became complacent taking their voters for granted. The political elites took care of themselves and assumed they will always have the right to rule. They forgot that in a democracy people have the right to choose who leads them and the political leaders need to earn the right to lead. The 92-year-old Dr Mahatir made a stunning comeback – he had a good past track record, he saw things going wrong in his country and worked hard to win a second chance to lead the country.

After 61 years, DAP leader Lim Kiat Siang finally will be part of government and not the opposition and he earned that right as did Puan Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, whose family suffered, and she fought hard to earn the right to most likely become Malaysia’s first female Deputy Prime Minister.

So, bottom line is that the BN did not change, so the people changed government.

President Halimah Yacob at the opening of Singapore’s second session of the 13th Parliament 7 May 2018 – Photo: Halimah Yacob Facebook page

The Singapore President’s Address – The 3 key messages that stood out

President Halimah Yacob shared the government’s agenda in parliament earlier this week, spelling it out for the coming years. The 4G leaders will take the responsibility of implementing the agenda. I think the outcome of the Malaysian elections are timely and the 4G leaders should make the best out of it by learning key lessons so that they can do a good job and what is right to lead Singapore to a brighter future.

1. Key Message 1: Listen to views of feelings of Singaporeans (to understand them better).

This, I think, is the most important message which the 4G leaders must internalise and sincerely practice. The Pioneer generation of leaders understood their ground very well and came out with the right policies that transformed Singapore from 3rd World to 1st World in one generation. Had they not understood Singaporeans, what their aspirations were and what they wanted for the future, Singapore may have gone the way of many countries that gained independence around the time Singapore did but are today worst off that before they became independent.

Interestingly, DPM Tharman Shanmugaratnam made a Facebook posting on the same night of the President’s Address that alluded to the importance of this message and this is what he posted: “There were several themes in the President’s Address this evening. But this on the 4G leadership was the most important.”

DPM Tharman was referring to the part of the President speech which called upon the political leaders to listen to views and feeling of Singaporeans.

He clearly pointed this out as the most important message. Why? DPM Tharman is one leader who has a very good feel of the ground and not many are like him. He has also been able to, in the past, make many bold changes in Education and in how the economy should be structured. He could do so because he listened and understood Singaporeans.

Currently, over the recent past, more and more Singaporeans are feeling uncomfortable about some issues affecting them. It is important that the government listens and understands them. Some say that policies don’t reflect reality on the ground. Some examples are;

  • The Economy – the key messages from government are that our economy is doing very well but many companies, especially SMEs don’t feel that good about it. I wrote about the Dual economy effect where the MNCs and GLCs are experiencing different growth and support compared to SMEs who are struggling.
  • The Future of jobs – are we ready for the Future Economy?
  • Income inequality – this is a global phenomenon, but some feel the government is not addressing this adequately – I am glad Minister Ong Ye Kung raised this issue recently.
  • The cost of living, the ability of our young to afford a house in the future and the quality of life in Singapore. These are serious worries Singaporean have.

2. Key Message 2 : Be Bold enough to make changes (not just tweak things)

If the CFE is a reflection of level of a bold plan for the Future Economy of Singapore, then I feel that the 4G leaders have not displayed boldness. Many of the ideas and plans were tweaks of past ideas and plans. It was difficult to spot and exciting vision for the future of Singapore and how we will get there.

A bold plan for the Future of the Economy would have been to turn things completely around and make SMEs and local companies the core contributors of our future economy. Currently I don’t see any change in the government’s thinking about how we will be driving Singapore’s economy. We are still relying on the MNC/GLC model of the past in most economic policies. A fundamental change in mindset of govt needed for this to happen. Then all policies will fall in place to make real changes happen.

Recently I attended an event where a 4G minister made a speech about the government’s plan and what the government will do to support future economy of Singapore. He shared three things the government will do;

a. The government will build the right Infrastructure quoting some of the same development plans we have been hearing for a few years now.

b. Provide Singaporeans with Education to prepare future generations to fit into the future economy.

c. Build system based on meritocracy and a corrupt free govt.

Frankly, while these three may be important, they did not really inspire. In fact, reflecting on the message, I realize we have heard the same from our founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew some 50 years ago. I would have hoped to hear something new or at least tell us how differently we will be doing things for these 3 thrusts be to inspire confidence for our future. What worked in the past may not necessarily work in future. My advice to the 4G leadership is : Be bold and make bold changes.

The Late Lee Kuan Yew, in an article published on Asiaone on 21 Jan 2011, used the Japan example of how the PAP govt might get voted out one day. He was quoted to say: “Mr Lee referred to the Liberal Party in Japan as an example. The party held power from 1955 to 2009, with an 11-month interruption from 1993 to 1994. He said that the downfall of the Japanese party was partly because it “carried on with old ideas”.

So, this is a key message that old ways may not work anymore, look for new bold ideas.

3. Key Message 3: Trust between people and leaders cannot be Inherited by the next generation.

In the same token, the future leaders also cannot feel that have inherited the right to lead Singapore just because they have been put in place by virtue of the past government’s ability to put them in their current positions. They must inspire next generation about their future. They must show Singaporeans, especially our young that there is hope and many opportunities for them in the Future Singapore.

We are going to face rapid disruption in the years ahead – many reports quote that 50% jobs as we know today will be gone by the year 2030. Can the government and our 4G leaders do the right things and implement the right and bold changes needed to keep all Singapore employed and have a good quality of life in the years to come? This is my hope for the current 4G PAP leadership and I think they can do it if they listen well and make bold changes and be willing to slaughter ‘sacred cows’.

Perhaps 4G leaders may want to create a vision equivalent to the ‘Swiss standard of living’ again where Singaporeans can aim for a vision of meaningful employment with respectable wages and where there is a balanced lifestyle where we all work hard but also have time, space and resources to enjoy Singapore. And when the 4G leaders make it happen, they would have won the trust of Singaporeans and PAP would have earned the right to lead Singapore many more years to come.

Conclusion

From what I read from reports, corruption and kleptocracy had plagued Malaysia politics for some time now. People got tired of this and spoke at the elections through their votes.

We are fortunate that Singapore does not face these same issues. But this does not mean Singapore has no other problems of our own. For the PAP’s 4G leaders to continue to lead Singapore, they must identify these problems and they must understand what are Singaporeans getting tired of. Leaders can identify what these issues are only by listening sincerely. Once they understand the issues, the leaders must be bold enough to make changes even these are fundamental mindset changes never done before in Singapore. When these changes take effect and improve the lives of all Singaporean, only then can our future political leaders earn the right to lead and solidify the trust Singaporeans have in them.

Our 4G must give birth to a new social compact among govt, the political leaders and the population where everyone can be happy while working hard to entrench a home in Singapore for future generations as we aim for SG100. We thank the Pioneer generation for making Singapore what she is today. But that what the past leaders did for Singapore. What are the future leaders now doing to earn their right to lead Singapore? I hope we will hear more if this from the 4G leaders during the debate on President’s address and hope they can paint a new vision and share their strategy that can inspire Singaporeans to be confident of our future.

Inderjit Singh, who had served four terms as Member of Parliament (MP) with Singapore’s People’s Action Party (PAP), is also an entrepreneur. This article first appeared on his personal Facebook page

* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.

 

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